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Defining Democracy With a Camera

State Department Challenge Draws Entries From 95 Countries

Here in the U.S., democracy is often viewed as synonymous with freedom, elections and equality. But to other countries worldwide, especially those governed by dictators, democracy is seen in some odd ways: as a glass of water, a smoothie or a pigeon.

This was evident in the entries submitted to the Democracy Video Challenge, a global online competition spearheaded by the U.S. State Department to promote an international dialogue on democracy. Fifteen of the 196 videos that made it to the semifinal round (out of 900 entries from 95 countries) were shown last Thursday at the Hirshhorn Museum. (Viewers can check out the entries at and vote for their favorites beginning Friday through June 15.)

“There’s a diversity of opinion on what democracy is,— said William Reese, president and CEO of the International Youth Foundation, one of the contest sponsors.

For instance, the video submitted by Akash Mohimen of India shows a set of dominoes to illustrate the effect of a village election. In the end, democracy is “when power is at your fingertips,— Mohimen said in the video.

To Dorian Lohmann of Ghana, democracy is “expensive.— Lohmann’s video features an election for class president where the student who bribed his classmates won.

Ninety-five percent of the entries, Reese said, were produced by amateurs who are 30 years old or younger. “Some of the videos are not very articulate,— he said. But what mattered most was that the contest “has given them a voice.—

The contest rules are simple: Create a video that completes the phrase, “Democracy is …— Contestants had to make sure that their video is no longer than three minutes, has English subtitles and is uploaded onto YouTube.

“The submissions clearly tell us the challenges to democracy other countries face. That entry from Ghana shows us that corruption is endemic,— said Jean Rogers, deputy director of programs for the Center for International Private Enterprise.

George Clack, the State Department director pf publications who has seen all 900 videos, said he was struck by how nondemocratic countries responded to the challenge. “They take it more seriously than Americans did,— he said.

Contest sponsors prescreened all videos to ensure they complied with contest rules and YouTube terms of use. In the first two rounds of judging, videos were evaluated on how well they demonstrated the meaning and value of democracy, whether they contained original concepts and storytelling techniques, and production values.

In terms of production value, the entry from a team of young artists from Iran, Germany and Great Britain is a good example of one with a high standard. These young artists used animation to describe democracy as “when all of God’s children sing together.—

“Some of the entries are intriguing,— said Jonathan Margolis, who conceptualized the challenge. Margolis is deputy coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs at the State Department. “We wanted to use the new media to communicate the meaning of democracy,— he said.

To Chansa Tembo of Zambia, democracy is “like a smoothie of blended philosophical ideas, ideologies, cultural norms and aesthetic values.—

Mohamed Sheriff of Sierra Leone defines democracy as “a safe drinking water.— An entry from Japan portrays democracy as “Obama City,— while a video from Taiwan conveys that democracy is “following the majority and respecting others.—

In an entry from Nepal, Bigyan Dixit used a tray of eggs to illustrate how far each country has progressed in obtaining democracy. The egg named Afghanistan, for example, is untouchable. The egg named Iraq has a dead chick in it. And the egg named America has a chick. “Democracy is a pigeon … let it be free in the sky,— Dixit said in the video.

The 21 finalists will be announced Friday. Six grand winners will be selected from sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, the Near East and North Africa, South and Central Asia, the Western Hemisphere, as well as one anonymous video.

Margolis said they decided to include an anonymous video category so “we won’t jeopardize the safety— of the participants.

Winners will receive a trip to New York, Hollywood and Washington, D.C.

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